Fiction About Fiction: Dangers and Missed Opportunities in Processing Stories

For the most part, we process (“consume”) fiction, in its various forms, for divertisement. But fiction sometimes comes with a false bill of goods: that we will (somehow) learn (something) from it; we will walk away from the experience a better person. The promissory note is sometimes issued by the marketers of art. But it also figures in serious psychology of fiction. I have some cautions to add to this tale. And I would like to propose an exercise to help readers reflect on the transformational potential of fiction, and art more generally.

Consider in particular, Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s, The Story Telling Animal. Both authors argue that human abilities and propensity to create and process (“consume”) fiction are evolutionary adaptations. In particular, they claim they evolved because one can learn from fiction.

Some, like Stephen Pinker, disagree. Here, I will not elaborate, let alone attempt to resolve, these evolutionary questions. However, I recommend Patrick Colm Hogan’s criticism of current evolutionary theories about art (chapter 8 of Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts), which calls for a deep understanding of the requirements on any theory of evolution (psychology doesn’t get a free pass). I would also note that the fact that a psychological or social activity has benefits does not mean that it evolved because of those benefits.

In order to answer questions about possible benefits of fiction, we need to answer the question: what are the different ways in which one can learn? For whatever we can learn from fiction must be contained within the set of ways in which we can learn. This in particular calls for designer-based theories of mind. We need to consider the huge, manifold set of mechanisms of learning, and their properties. We also should consider educational psychology (along with the other cognitive sciences, of course).

Gottschall claims that we don’t learn statable knowledge from fiction. We learn implicit and episodic knowledge, which are subject to different rules of learning. (As an aside, I would note that we can learn statable knowledge from fiction. At the very least, one can learn a lot of vocabulary; with vocabulary come concepts, and concepts are the foundation of knowledge. My late Boggle friend, Ralph Greer, would thrash me at Boggle throughout his 90s. His superiority came partly from having read much more fiction than me, which equipped him with an immense vocabulary.)

However, we also know that explicit, conscious, reflective learning is a huge driver of knowledge — it is a major distinction between humans and other species. It seems that there is much that could potentially be learnt from fiction that requires verbalization, explicit modeling, discussion, etc. In short, much that is “theoretic” rather than purely “mythic” can be learned from the mythic realm; and theoretic knowledge can potentiate the processing of mythic knowledge. Compare one of my favourites, Merlin Donald’s A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness.

Now Gottschall does believe that what we learn from fiction involves mental models and mental simulations. But he thinks those models are implicit, tacit — not theoretic. No space to discuss this here, but I think the popular distinction doesn’t hold water.

While Gottschall has proposed excellent ideas about learning from fiction, he may have fallen into a trap. He has looked at what people tend to do and assumed that it is all they can and should do. Yes, we tend to lazily sit back and process art for the pure fun of it. But when we do this, (a) we don’t tend to learn much from it; and (b) we abdicate control of our personal development in response to art. I believe we can do better.

  • With respect to (a), whereas Cognitive Productivity deals with learning from expository knowledge, it marshals a lot of research to demonstrate that the expectations of passive learning amount to wishful thinking. The brain has tremendous inertia. It is not that easily influenced by others. (For example, according to the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning of Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, we have a “myside bias”; and we try to convince others of our points of view.) I believe the principle of mental-inertia applies to fiction too. But, per the next bullet, this is a principle, not a law.
  • With respect to (b), as Gottschall shows, fiction can influence us in very subtle, unconscious ways. Advertising rests on this principle. This has dark implications. By passively processing fiction, our attitudes and beliefs can be transformed for the worse.

Let’s consider two of the world’s greatest “love” fictions: Romeo & Juliet and “Ne me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t leave me”, by Jacques Brel). (I use romantic love because one of the CogZest projects is emotional regulation, using “limerence” —romantic love and romantic grief— as a prime example, per my 2015 ISRE Geneva presentation.)

When Brel’s “Ne me Quitte Pas” was named the best love song of the century, he responded that it isn’t a love song. It’s the song of man who lies prostrate before a woman. This is a very important point, because this most famous of love songs, like many others, tends to make lovers more miserable, worse off, less mature; sometimes despondent to the point of suicide. (Hence, yes, fiction is potentially dangerous.)

Romeo ought similarly be considered something of an anti-hero. He enters overwhelmingly lovelorn. He quickly forgets his “limerent object” by falling head over heels in love with Juliet. He remains throughout the entire play out of control, or “controlled by his emotions”. Alas, the “love” in Romeo & Juliet has shaped the western world’s notion of love, at least tacitly becoming an ideal of devotion. Teenagers are exposed to this, and without proper scaffolding, may develop a model of mind in which subjugation to emotion is viewed as acceptable, and even healthy. The message is particularly insidious because Romeo & Juliet has prominent themes, such as the dangers of feuding, and the dangers of meddling. While one is busy processing the latter themes, one is less likely to devote notice that Romeo’s attitudes towards his emotions is warped. And, even if one does momentarily take a critical attitude towards Romeo, due to “cue overload” (discussed in Cognitive Productivity), when reflecting back on Romeo & Juliet, one is again less likely to recall one’s critical reflection about Romeo’s emotion. This makes the audience more vulnerable to implicitly learning that infatuation is normal and acceptable.

However, the play can be used more productively, to exemplify, articulate, develop and leverage theories of emotion, and emotional self-regulation. I.e., about how to relate, and not to relate to one’s emotions. Consider for example stoicism, acceptance and commitment therapy, and metacognitive therapy.

It’s not that Romeo & Juliet clearly expresses a theory, but that one can use play to develop a theory and to engrain (program) in oneself ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. To do this, one needs to think about it, reflectively; and to call up the play when it is applicable. It can help one learn to keep a safe distance from one’s emotion.

By relating theory to fiction, one can leverage fiction at “run time”, in dealing with circumstances, i.e., to apply knowledge.

But this requires a potent work of art, a system, and a lot of effort. And one would want to do this without spoiling the enjoyment of fiction. A tall order, but not impossible.

Who wouldn’t want their children to learn something helpful from fiction like Romeo & Juliet Juliet and “Ne me Quitte Pas”? Even adults might potentially learn to better navigate relationships thanks to those masterpieces.

In my next blog post, I will propose an exercise for the reader based on the questions raised in this post.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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